Wednesday, December 26, 2018

For "Sonic Creed," Stefon Harris puts together a mellow program featuring his regular band Blackout

The vibraphonist Stefon Harris has helped extend the historical roster of major jazz stylists on mallet percussion.
Cover art: The severe visual presentation  seems at odds with the music inside.
This year he has released "Sonic Creed" (Motema) with his band Blackout, and is touring on the strength of the album. He will appear at the Purdue Jazz Festival on Jan. 18; and, as a solo player and working with students, at Butler University April 3 and 4

"Sonic Creed" represents him in mid-career (he's 45) as a receptive bandleader with a way of showcasing multiple lines, many of them rhythmic, simultaneously — but without clutter. The catchy Bobby Timmons/Oscar Brown Jr. song "Dat Dere," opens this disc amiably but with distinction.

In the front line, Harris and saxophonist Casey Benjamin display a compatibility that runs throughout the program. The two don't shy away from melodic invention, they are assertive without aggressiveness, and they complement arrangements that leave so much to the percussionists (Terreon Gully and Pedrito Martinez).

I could do without the atmospheric "Let's Take a Trip to the Sky," which features the floaty vocalism of Jean Baylor, but just about everything else sounds attractive. "Chasin' Kendall" has some flavorful bass clarinet by Felix Peikli, who supplements Benjamin in the reed department on most tracks, and a warm, cogent marimba solo by the leader.

Benjamin is outstanding in Horace Silver's "Cape Verdean Blues," a slightly exotic blues with a rhythmically unconventional profile. The percussionists forge a brilliant partnership in "Song of Samson," and a sweet-toned   Benjamin highlights Abbey Lincoln's "Throw It Away." "Gone Too Soon" is a striking conclusion to the program as Harris concocts a Michael Jackson tribute duet with the up-and-coming Joseph Doubleday on marimba.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Protean pro-modern violinist Jennifer Koh displays her affinity for Kaija Saariaho

The close relationship of American violinist Jennifer Koh and Finnish
Jennifer Koh displays her affinity for a contemporary Finnish composer.
composer Kaija Saariaho is in evidence with the title's mathematical precision in "Saariaho X Koh" (Cedille Records). 

The multiplier effect (interpret "X" as "times") rules, as Koh continues on this release to display her receptivity to repertoire off the beaten track.  Saariaho's closeness to visual phenomena saturates her compositions. 

The longest of the chamber-music works on this recording is "Light and Matter," for which Koh is joined by Anssi Karttunen, cello, and Nicolas Hedges, piano. The rumbling start doesn't signal menace so much as potential, and the work opens up toward the individuality of each instrument. Colors and shadows, briefly isolated, imprint themselves as essential. The music brings to mind Shelley's "life, like a dome of many-colored glass, stains the white radiance of eternity," where "stains" leans less toward the negative meaning in favor of the variegated hues that bring fullness to life.

"Cloud Trio" over the course of its four movements has a sweetness that
Kaija Saariaho's compositions are inspired by natural phenomena.
adheres to Saariaho's music, but never congeals it. With violist Hsin-Yun Huang and cellist Wilhelmina Smith joining Koh, the performance pushes the score through the occasional harshness of the third movement to the calm of the "Tranquillo" finale, in which short solos are like confirming check-ins from each instrument.

I find most disturbing the disc's longest work, "Graal Theatre," in which Koh is accompanied by  the 20/21 Ensemble of the Curtis institute. The two-movement piece is weighed down by the outsized, display-oriented accompaniment in the first movement. It's like a trap for the soloist, who becomes a caged curiosity, reminding me of Kafka's "hunger artist" (but in this case, both overfed and undernourished).  

The second movement allows the soloist more freedom, opening with a cadenza that presages good things. There's more of a feeling of partnership and a translucent quality to the orchestration. The composer writes that she at first imagined the violinist as the main character in a play, then left that image behind as she wrote. I'm afraid the first movement still suffers from a stifling kind of overdramatization. The finale is more revelatory of Saariaho's truer genius, and links this flawed concerto more firmly to the chamber pieces that make the rest of the disc worth hearing.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Movie dreams: What might be real-world consequences of stories that fire our imaginations?

"Based on a true story" or some such phrase has practically become part of the marketing brand for a number of feature films. Apparently it's difficult to make up stories and commit them to the big screen, or even to adapt a novel for cinematic purposes. Best to raid the preserves of truth, which clings to its hard-won reputation of being stranger than fiction.

As a result, after the denouement, filmgoers get a few paragraphs of reading material, sometimes accompanied by still photos, informing them of what the movie's raw material disgorged in the years following the events just enacted for them. I find this both satisfying, insofar as it provides closure, and frustrating, as it deflates the narrative for which I've suspended my disbelief for over 90 minutes or so.  Those who read lots of about movies before they arrive can process "based on a true story" better than I. The feeling struck home for me first at last year's "Hidden Figures." This year, having taken in "Green Book," "The Happy Prince," and "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" in quick succession, I got my just deserts for having so little knowledge in advance: I had to balance entertainment against education, always a difficult act, and process the emotional payoff.

When I went to see "Green Book," for instance, I knew that Don Shirley was a real mid-century pianist on kind of the jazz-classical cusp, somehow the black counterpart of Peter Nero.  But I assumed the character "Lip" who drove Shirley around the South during the Kennedy administration had been invented on the model of the Italian-Americans whom Spike Lee made so much responsible for racism in "Do the Right Thing" and "Jungle Fever." What a surprise to find out Shirley's chauffeur in his bold excursion through Jim Crow Dixie was indeed an unpolished urban Italian-American who had worked as a bouncer at the Copacabana!

Now I feel a need to take some favorite fairy tales from my childhood and supply them with postscripts that appear to ground them in reality. You can imagine the films as Disneyfied or in fresher adaptations, with homage paid to verisimilitude after the director has said "That's a wrap!" for the last time. Then, for the viewer's reading pleasure, this kind of epilogue:


After the wedding, Cinderella settled into domestic life in the palace, eventually giving birth to five children and raising them with the conventional assistance of servants. She then had the leisure to devote herself to female empowerment campaigns through her Cinder-hello! Foundation. Her two stepsisters abjured the company of men after their rejection by the Prince and went into business together making ornamental glass slippers, selling them to tourists who flocked to the kingdom in growing numbers.


After a hundred years the land near the enchanted castle had been developed. Its upper-crust neighbors agitated to have the castle removed and its surrounding forest of brambles cut down. Following extensive litigation, the bramble forest was hacked away and the castle turned into condos, developed by descendants of the prince (now prosperous citizens of the republic that had succeeded the monarchy) who had ended the spell by planting a kiss on Sleeping Beauty.  The spindle on which the princess had pricked her finger many years before was installed for public admiration in the foyer entrance to the Narcolepsy Institute downtown, where it remained until fire destroyed the building in 1892.


The troll's surviving family filed a wrongful-death suit, which came to nothing, against the largest of
the Gruff brothers. He had founded a martial-arts studio, Gruff Enuff, as a result of his fame.  Relationships among the three brothers deteriorated, especially since the stout brother who finished off the troll had been set up fraternally for a grisly fate. The two thinner brothers, though given to sporadic quarreling and raising old resentments, opened a restaurant together on a manmade island surrounded by a moat and accessed by three bridges, with troll statuary installed next to each. Being goats and accustomed to eating anything, they created a menu boasting "ultimate fusion cuisine." After many years of catering to well-heeled gluttons, they adopted this slogan: "Trolling your appetite since 1908."

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Blue Violet out of Chicago: The American muse expresses itself in violin-piano duo's survey

Blue Violet Duo has a mission to represent American music that leans toward the amiable side in
Louise Chan, piano, and Kate Carter, violin, explore American music for duo.
"American Souvenirs" (self-produced, distributed through CD Baby).

Kate Carter, violin, and Louise Chan, piano, have a partnership that finds joy in these interpretations of Norman Dello Joio, William Bolcom, John Adams, and Paul Schoenfeld.

The compositions come from various segments of  conservative modernism. The mood ranges from nostalgic to the contemporary American scene. Nostalgia, artfully resurfaced, animates the closing composition, "Four Souvenirs" by Schoenfeld. The idioms the composer draws upon are signaled by the movement titles: Samba, Tango, Tin Pan Alley, and Square Dance. The choice of the word "souvenirs" prepares the listener not to expect more than affectionate reminders of four treasured popular musical idioms native to the Western Hemisphere. This is light music that lives up to its function.

A more oblique take on Americana, with the theme of America hitting the road, is the choice of Adams in "Road Movies." The personalized form of minimalism that Adams has developed over four prolific decades gets an intimate duo representation here in "Relaxed Groove," "Meditative," and "40% Swing."

The disc starts off winningly with Dello Joio's "Variations and Capriccio." The first movement shows consistent ingenuity in making the most of its simple theme through the variation technique. The second has the zestful flavor of an excellent dessert wine.

The piece I'm likely to return to most often is Bolcom's Second Sonata. It covers the most terrain of anything on the program. The composer has always seemed exuberantly restless, and seeks to keep listeners surprised a little off-guard; this sonata is in that vein. "Brutal, Fast," the second movement, follows hard on the heels of the floating "Summer Dreams." A winsome slow movement sets up the classic-jazz-inflected finale, "In Memory of Joe Venuti."

Each of the four compositions bodies forth a distinctive personality. In every case, Chan and Carter display solid partnership and show insight into and sympathy with what the composers represented are about. Violin and piano tone alike is of a superior order, and the affection the duo surely has for these pieces is evident in the warmth and vigor of the performances.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

'The Nutcracker' thrives in Indianapolis Ballet production

The opening scene of Indianapolis Ballet's 12th annual "Nutcracker" production subtly reinforces a down-to-earth community feeling of a ballet whose fantasy and dream elements make it ideal for the season, and not just for its Christmas-season setting.

Clara looks on as the Nutcracker directs soldier platoon's attack on mice.
We see at first the gradual gathering of guests outside the upper-middle-class Stahlbaum home, site of the family's Christmas Eve party.  We can admire the naturalness of the casual, friendly interaction of adults and children before much dancing of any kind has taken place. Tchaikovsky's music has already exerted its charm, of course, starting with the perky overture. Everything that we see and hear is inviting and rests on common ground — a generous invitation to the wonders that follow.

It is to the credit of James Leitner's direction that the company conveys such a sociable atmosphere, and when the action moves inside and Drosselmeyer's godfather magic starts taking over, the transition toward fantasy seems entirely natural. As little as a narrative thread has to do with "The Nutcracker," what there is of it was firmly delineated on the show's opening night at the Murat Theatre, Old National Centre.

The pivotal center of the action depends a lot on how Drosselmeyer is played. A balletically centered interpretation is essential, but so too is dramatic insight. Paul Vitali, the company's artistic director, offered both. The magical powers Drosselmeyer commands are carefully husbanded in this production. The suggestion that he may have some connection to dark arts is effectively muted.

We see mainly an eccentric, avuncular Drosselmeyer in close but mysterious connection to the festivities. He moves with ease among the host family and their friends. That he also represents a world apart allows him to plausibly usher the dreaming Clara into the Land of Sweets, where her delight can fuse with ours after the trauma of her broken, then mended, nutcracker gift. Vitali's broad gestures and swooping elegance expressed both his affection for making a Christmas party extra special and his readiness to trail mystery in his wake. Clara, as danced by Josephine Kirk, perfectly represented the vehicle for his generosity and capacity to evoke wonder. That carried right through the finale, where Clara's central position sums up the tribute that the panoply of character dancers offers to childhood dreams.

Staging of ensemble numbers was astute at several points, starting with the battle of mice and toy

Snow King and Queen:Christopher Lingner and Yoshiko Kamikusa
soldiers. Thorough costuming and disguises didn't mask the fitness of Greg Goessner and Leonard Perez for their leadership roles as, respectively, the Mouse King and the Nutcracker. In a much different ensemble victory, the crossings and branched movements of the Snowflakes in the scene that ends the first act created splendid patterns in white that mimicked the geometry of real-world snowflakes, and complemented the stunning precision and dash of Christopher Lingner as Snow King and Yoshiko Kamikusa as Snow Queen.

The ballet's other notable duo — the Cavalier and the Sugar Plum Fairy — bookend Act 2's character dances and were capably presented Friday by Riley Horton and Kristin Toner. The stately onset of the Pas de Deux yielded to the panache of the variations, including the Sugar Plum Fairy's ethereal, celesta-accompanied magnetism.

The idiomatic choreography and costuming for the character dances worked hand-in-glove. The athleticism required for the Russian Trepak got single-dancer focus in Khris Santos' performance, set against an ensemble of young women whose dancing both complemented and contrasted with the soloist's. The Lingner-Kamikusa duo richly deserve singling out for their mastery of Arabian Coffee: The sinuous precision of her dancing,  meshed with lifts and catches that were so smooth and fluid they seemed to suspend gravity, made for a memorable showcase. Chinese Tea, as danced by the evocatively costumed Abigail Bixler and Greg Goessner, caught the spirit of the music without settling for the "yellowface" stereotyping that has recently come under fire in other productions.

Management of the accumulating second-act forces in the finale could hardly have been more uplifting and exciting. Something more captivating than a choreographed curtain call was achieved by the staging, and with the orchestra continuing its colorful account of Tchaikovsky's score under Vince Lee's baton, the full splendor of "The Nutcracker" was brought home. And after all the sugary visions,"home" is the underlying theme of the story and this production's realization of it.

[Photos by Moonbug Photography]

Friday, December 7, 2018

Dance Kaleidoscope's holiday glow: A world tour of Christmas, plus a celebration of Hanukkah

Dance Kaleidoscope's resumed tradition of adding year-end holiday luster to its season is back, wearing a splendid two-piece suit: "Let There Be Light (The Story of Hanukkah)" and "World Christmas Kaleidoscope: A Celebration of Christmas Around the World."

Themes of challenge and restoration abound in 'Let There Be Light.'
The program, titled "Home for the Holidays," opened Thursday night on the IRT Upperstage. Both works are the creation of DK artistic director David Hochoy, the latter adapted from last year to fit the current company; "Let There Be Light" revives a 2003 piece.

The Hanukkah narrative thread, which is fleshed out in a program note, is applied with a deft touch in "Let There Be Light," yet with more than sufficient emotional impact. The foundational event of the sacrifice Abraham was prepared to carry out of his son Isaac has a poignant position in the middle, with Manuel Valdes in the role of the intended sacrificial victim.

DK dancers lively up themselves in the reggae-styled "All I Want for Christmas."
The connection to the Hebrew texts Leonard Bernstein used in his "Chichester Psalms" is also subtly applied to the psalms of praise and complaint that the composer set. For accompaniment, Hochoy chose a more fully orchestrated and mixed-chorus version of Bernstein's original, which has the effect of emphasizing the communal import of the psalms more than their personal expression. It's a smart choice, because an imperiled, unified community and its survival against large odds is the holiday's central theme in celebration of the Maccabees' successful struggle against oppression 2,500 years ago.

The transition between an intact community to one aware of its vulnerability was neatly etched as free, flowing gestures and movement gave way to more angular, shielding types. The setting for three of the company's men of Psalm 2 (known in English and to fans of Handel's "Messiah" as "Why do the nations rage?") matches the music's militancy with the rise of Jewish resistance.

Eventually, as the persistence of a people's faith gains the upper hand, there is the tender, reverent processional with one lamp (a live flame carried by Timothy June Thursday night) carried onstage and becoming the basis for the Hanukkah lighting of a central menorah. The simple, ritualized piety was underlined by Laura Glover's delicately shaded lighting upon Cheryl Sparks' timeless costumes. The saving of the much-damaged temple celebrated in the Hanukkah story puts special significance behind the program title "Home for the Holidays."

In the second half, the balance of drollery and devotion was sustained through a panoply of deft choreography and the idiomatic, sometimes spectacular costume designs by Sparks, Barry Doss, and Lydia Tanji. To incorporate the troupe's name into the piece's title has never been more appropriate: Kaleidoscopic is the best description of both the music and the dancing.

The final moment of "O Holy Night"
With Jillian Godwin displaying sharply defined limberness and comic virtuosity, the suite was launched by the solo "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy."  Balletic turns were mixed in with flung arms, shoulder shrugs and concise jerkiness to spice up the fun in one of Tchaikovsky's most beloved "Nutcracker" numbers. Fun was multiplied in the reindeer mimicry of the company's "Here Comes Santa Claus" as sung by Elvis Presley, and in the imitative ornamentation Stuart Coleman exhibited in a solo setting of Elvis' "White Christmas" recording.

It's difficult not to mention everything, but I want to highlight the reggae-intensive "All I Want for Christmas," in which Valdes was joined in succession by Cody Miley, Godwin, and Marie Kuhns for a salute to Jamaica. It was a riot of individuality pulled together in an exuberant common cause. Also: the plaintive "Nadal de Luintra" from Spain, with Aleksa Lukasiewica and Timothy June as Mary and Joseph in search of Bethlehem lodging, and a setting from Benin of a somehow fully reverent but never cheaply worshipful "O Holy Night," stunningly performed by the gesturally precise trio of Coleman, Lukasiewicz, and Paige Robinson.

[Photos by Crowe's Eye Photography]

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Thomas Hampson focuses on Chicago composers as he furthers the American art song

There is a cornucopia of pleasant surprises available about the American art song in Thomas
Thomas Hampson has steadily promoted the vitality of the art song.
latest recording, "Songs from Chicago" (Cedille Records).

For keeping interest alive in a 20th-century original, the lifelong Chicagoan John Alden Carpenter, the CD makes its mark particularly with his settings of poems by Langston Hughes and especially by Rabindranath Tagore, whose cycle "Gitanjali" accounts for one-third of the hourlong program, with sensitive assistance at the piano by Kuang-Hao Huang.

It's Hampson's debut on the Chicago-based label, which is still under the direction of its founder, James Ginsburg, son of the most widely beloved Supreme Court justice. The performances on "Songs from Chicago" are immaculate. "Gitanjali" is a richly perfumed set of prose poems in a style that is too florid for our era, perhaps, but Carpenter's musical response to them is like a preservative that makes them seem fresh.

Radiant piano chords introduce the first line of one of the songs: "I am like a remnant of a cloud of autumn uselessly roaming in the sky, O my sun ever-glorious." You need the insulin of music to moderate the sugar high of those words, and Carpenter supplied it. There's no sense that the composer intended to introduce the slightest irony behind any of Tagore's prose-poems, however. It's his very commitment to the texts that enabled him to supply settings of consistent enhancement throughout the 23 songs (plus a spoken prologue and epilogue).

Carpenter is also represented here by three of his "Four Negro Songs" to Hughes' poetry. Authentic, zestful appreciation of the African-American heritage is a feature of both the compositions and Hampson's performance of them. "Shake Your Brown Feet, Honey!," a celebration of vernacular dance, is performed jauntily by the duo. Hampson cannot be accused of adopting a blackface style, I believe, but is simply being true to both Hughes' idiom and Carpenter's effusive setting. He is no more required to be black to sing these songs authentically than he would need to be a despairing,  love-sick German youth to put across Schubert's "Winterreise."

Most effective from the standpoint of the classical art-song tradition are seven songs by Ernst Bacon to well-chosen excerpts of Walt Whitman poetry. Hampson's sustained phrasing is well-deployed here, especially in "The Last Invocation." The singer's ability to put some heft into his middle and upper register without straining comes through in "Darest Thou Now, O Soul."  Bacon's music strikes me sometimes as a little tendentious and "forced," but it must be hard for composers to avoid that whenever they set Whitman.

It's hard to account responsibly for everything on this disc, but I want to single out the expressive tone of anger Hampson commands so well in Margaret Bonds' setting of one of Hughes's most anthologized poems, the one beginning "I, too, sing America. / I am the darker brother." Also worth highlighting is the sustained feeling of veneration that Hampson and Huang achieve in Florence Price's "Song to the Dark Virgin," a Hughes poem of more than usual mystery.

The whole disc gives a boost to the need not to overlook the art song when it comes to celebrating our musical heritage. Popular song by no means tells the full story of the American experience.

Monday, December 3, 2018

A tidy 'Messiah' treated expansively in an inaugural Second Presbyterian and Indy Baroque collaboration

Long after George Bernard Shaw deplored the ungainly size of Victorian-era performing forces in "Messiah," fans of Handel's oratorio now usually encounter one of two correctives: Large choruses, well-trained, have become adept at surmounting the choral difficulties and, on the other hand, small vocal ensembles — Shaw wished for "a chorus of twenty capable artists" — have gained greater acceptance in concert and on recordings.

The latter course was smartly chosen by Michelle Louer of Second Presbyterian Church in two
Michelle L. Louer conducted trim, fit forces.
performances over the weekend in collaboration with the Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra. She conducted the trim vocal and instrumental forces in an insightful and fully expressive, but resolutely unshowy, concert Sunday afternoon at the church.

Going Shaw's wish several singers fewer, she had trained the church's 15-voice Beecher Singers to meet Handel's demands expertly. More important, the chorus size suited well the chamber-orchestra accompaniment, which sounded more subtle and caressing with "period" instruments than modern ones. And the vocal soloists were drawn from her choir, so that in neither appearance nor sound was there any danger of grandstanding.

This set-up, and several other choices regarding the distribution of solos and the relative novelty today of a chorus appended to the duet "How beautiful are the feet," was explicitly to honor the Dublin premiere in the spring of 1742. There were also interpretive choices that, despite the church setting and the pastor's welcoming prayer, re-established "Messiah" as what its devout librettist, Charles Jennens, frankly called "a fine Entertainment."

That reminder has to be set against Jennens' clever arrangement of biblical texts that follow the practice of typology, the supposed foretelling in the Old Testament of the foundational Christ narrative in the New. This once was basic to Christian use of the Hebrew Bible in sermons and religious education. The King James Version I was given as a boy is loaded with epigraphs intended to guide pious reading, stretched to the maximum typologically by such nudges as glossing the erotic imagery of the Song of Solomon to illustrate "the mutual love of Christ and his church," for instance.

Yesterday during the performance's second intermission,  a gentleman sitting near me, alluding to the typology, marveled that "Messiah" seemed to him "the Christian ISIS — so fanatical!" There is thus room for the oratorio to be taken as an extreme profession of faith as well as a fine entertainment. Because of its glorious music, "Messiah" seems to rest comfortably on that rich double meaning: still, Hector Berlioz, no stranger to religious grandiosity himself, thought the "Amen" finale blasphemous; like many others, I am always satisfyingly "entertained" by it, as I was Sunday.

In any case, contemporary American performances of "Messiah" tend to be well past the Victorian era's "Messiah" elephantiasis, summed up as "a case of sustained enormity" by the scholar Richard Luckett. This had several conspicuous advantages in what I heard Sunday. The opening chorus of Part II, "Behold the Lamb of God," is often performed somberly as a heavy invitation to get our frowny faces on in preparation for arias and choruses referencing the Passion of Christ.

On Sunday, the pared-down choral force and a slightly animated tempo for "Behold" served as a reminder that "Messiah" bears essentially glad tidings of a sacrifice designed to "take away the sin of the world." A lighter choral texture also invites reflectiveness on the listener's part. A little later, after the straying-flock imitation (pointedly effective Sunday) in the first part of "All we like sheep," the reminder that "the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all" sets us right on the reason for the season — especially when we remember that the oratorio is weighted toward the events that culminate in Easter, the season of its premiere. Call it fine entertainment or a confirmation of faith, it worked.

Large choruses that are conscientiously prepared can make more of dynamic contrasts, and with luck they don't have trouble staying together in fast passages. The thousand-voice choruses of Shaw's day prudently slowed, sounding "lumbering" in the process. Only the last syllable of "purify" (in "And he shall purify") sounded effortful to me in this performance. And, in "For unto us," I liked the way each section followed the sinuous path to the summit of "born" accurately without planting the flag, as it were.

Sometimes a large choir's loud-soft displays don't particularly put across the text: In the "Hallelujah" Chorus, why is "The kingdom of this world is become" sometimes rendered in hushed tones, with a big crescendo on "is become" to herald the Lord's eternal reign and a resumption of all the hallelujahs? Is the kingdom of this world a secret? None of that push-pull was evident Sunday. The Beecher Singers were far from monochromatic, but the small choir refrained from showing off spectrum extremes. "His yoke is easy, and His burden is light" was a great instance where loud-soft shadings were effectively displayed.

The Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra was a treat to hear. It played the "Pifa (Pastoral Symphony)" without a conductor, and with a buoyancy and alertness that indicated the shepherds about to be startled were indeed "keeping watch over their flocks by night," not sleeping. There were choruses to which the ensemble contributed some deft shaping of phrases, such as those between lines of text in "O thou that tellest good tidings of Zion." I found sufficiently descriptive the angry, murmuring bustle of the strings during the bass aria "Why do the nations" — even without the bite that modern instruments give to the accompaniment. The same goes for the "refiner's fire" passage in the early bass aria "But who may abide."

As for the soloists, Louer spread the responsibilities around, mostly to great effect. First off was the strong projection and expressiveness of David Smolokoff in the tenor recitative and aria that immediately follow the overture. If the tenor isn't good in those two pieces, some of the life of any "Messiah" to follow is quickly siphoned off. Not to worry in this case, and Smolokoff was just as convincing with the dire picture of divine wrath in "Thou shalt break them," effectively setting up the triumphalism of "Hallelujah."

I can't single out everyone, but in terms of fitness of a particular solo voice to a particular task, I must mention tenor John Brewer in the Part II group of recitatives and arias starting with the poignancy of "Thy rebuke hath broken His heart." Also, the brilliance and good-news spiritedness of alto Mitzi Westra in "Thou art gone up on high," bass Samuel Spade's deep-delving contrasts of light and darkness in the recitative and aria preceding the "For unto us" chorus, and baritone David Rugger's richly suggestive, dramatic "Behold, I tell you a mystery." It made for a fine introduction to the work's longest aria, "The trumpet shall sound," which never fails to be soul-stirring, even when processed through a secular sensibility like mine.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

The President of Russia and the Saudi Crown Prince have a fall guy in common; they'll be together wherever they go

Keelan Dimick brings APA's Premiere Series to the halfway point

Keelan Dimick (from left), Nick Tucker, and Kenny Phelps engage a Premiere Series crowd.
Now living in Miami, Keelan Dimick has a beneficent form of "Iowa stubborn" in his makeup: He is a devotee of transcendental meditation — not an obvious foundation for a 27-year-old jazz pianist-composer.

Born in Fairfield in the Hawkeye State, Dimick is the third finalist this season to present two Premiere Series trio sets at the Jazz Kitchen on his way to the American Pianists Awards' "Discovery Week" in April, when the new Cole Porter Fellow will be selected and given a valuable career boost.

Freely acknowledging the gifts meditation has showered upon him, Dimick introduced several originals in the second set by crediting their creation to the practice. Fairfield, as he told the Indianapolis Star, is something of a TM center, and the pianist has been acquainted with the therapeutic/spiritual discipline since childhood.

Accompanied by bassist Nick Tucker and drummer Kenny Phelps, the pianist displayed a secure, flowing right-hand touch. He seems to be stingy with ornamentation for its own sake, but applies it selectively.  His rhythmic acuity was unfailing, and his range of inventiveness stayed broad yet efficient. The left hand typically lent harmonic support, but sometimes poked forward prominently as in "Deep in Cerebration."

That composition illustrated a characteristic freshness, particularly with its stop-start surprises and fondness for episodic form. Toward the end, he moved effortlessly into repetitive octave patterns of the kind often favored by Latin-style pianists.

His personalized approach to others' works — from a bebop classic to Joe Sample's "Street Life" — revealed a gift for adaptation that never meandered. His one unaccompanied solo, "All for One," was extensive but neatly turned out, a gentle samba flecked with harmonic eddies off the mainstream.

Dimick gave ample space to both sidemen and fed eagerly off their inspirations. The set finale was a whimsical medley opening with a couple of secular Christmas tunes and moving definitively into a substantial original, a tribute to the late piano master Mulgrew Miller.

Once again, the APA seems to have come up with a worthy contender for its next big jazz prize.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Bells to the forefront in guest pianist's Butler University recital

The Advent season bears unmistakable associations with bells and their sounds' heralding function.
Tuyen Tonnu, a guest at Butler, focused on solo piano music evoking bells.
So the calendar bears an appropriate resonance with the theme of Tuyen Tonnu's piano recital Friday evening at Butler University.

The pianist, associate professor at Illinois State University, rang the changes on the theme —from Oliver Knussen to Modest Mussorgsky. The composer whose aesthetic rests squarely on bell and chime sounds, the Estonian Arvo Pärt, was not represented, but the survey was nonetheless far-reaching and suggestive of the many ways tintinnabulation can serve the art of music.

The most obvious link is that, like bells, the piano depends upon striking and the subsequent fading of the sound produced (sustained or snuffed by the pedal in the case of the piano). Tonnu seems to be an artist particularly inspired by sound, and is likely to be a rewarding Debussy pianist as well.

It's not surprising that the repertoire on this recital has little to do with development in the traditional sense, because the manipulation of a piece's material serves how we process resonance and repetition instead of the rhetorical structures of the classical tradition. In this program, the most traditional piece, Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," subjects the recurring Promenade theme to varied treatment. But otherwise each "picture" is a self-contained miniature, with the program's thematic emphasis delayed until the finale, "The Great Gate of Kiev."

Immediately inviting was the diptych Tonnu designed to open the recital, contrasting Oliver Knussen's "Prayer Bell Sketch," op. 29, with the "Noel" movement of Olivier Messiaen's "Vingt regrards sur l'enfant-Jésus." The discrete temple-bell sonorities of the former piece, written in memory of Toru Takemitsu, contrasted with the cathedral-tower clangor of the French composer's music, typically rich in overlaid sound. (The British composer-conductor Knussen, by the way, will no doubt inspire memorial pieces himself, as he died in July, contrary to the printed program.)

The durable George Crumb  was thus the recital's sole living composer, due to reach 90 next year. "A Little Suite for Christmas, A.D. 1979," generated by admiration for pictures much older than the ones that fueled Mussorgsky's imagination, is based on a couple of frescoes in Padua painted in 1305 by Giotto. The seven-part suite takes off from the generating idea to explore Christmas mysteries. It made use of strummed and stopped piano-string sound fused to keyboard playing, in a way reminiscent, though less flamboyant, of Crumb's "Makrokosmos" suites.

The lyrical outreach of the suite is modest to begin with, after the transfiguration implied by "The Visitation," the opening movement. The bell theme is pronounced as the suite gets under way, followed by the gentler lullaby and retrospective "Shepherd's Noel." "The Adoration of the Magi" is one of those glorious star-sparkled Crumb excursions, succeeded by the brightly accented vigor of "Nativity Dance," to which Tonnu lent an extraordinary sensitivity to the spectrum of attack and release. Strummed strings accompanied a muted application of the Coventry Carol ("Lullay, lullay"), typical of Crumb's gift for apt quotation.  Again, there was reinforcement of the recital's theme in the finale, "Carol of the Bells," capped by a fully indulged long fadeout.

The recitalist's affinity for the program's least-known composer, Hans Otte, was displayed in two movements from "The Book of Sounds." Through arpeggiation in the first and bell-like resonance in the second, the music invites the listener to be "at one with the sound," as Tonnu said in her oral program note. The work seemed a rather dogged illustration urging us to recall, as it did at least for me, W.H. Auden's reminder in his elegy for W.B. Yeats that "poetry makes nothing happen: it survives / In the valleys of its saying." Otte's music strives to make the listener comfortable lingering in the valleys of its saying. I had a little trouble lingering there.

Of Mussorgsky's suite, not much needs to be said. It was distinctly a plus that Tonnu's playing didn't bring to my inner ear Ravel's too-familiar orchestration, except for the mischievous ghost of the muted trumpet nattering like the beggar in "Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle." I particularly admired the piano-centric lyricism she imparted to "The Old Castle," with some detachment applied to the melody that set aside the memory of Ravel's mellifluous saxophone solo.

Her emphasis on Mussorgsky's spiky harmonies upheld his unconventionality, which is sometimes misinterpreted as amateurism. The Promenade variation in the sepulchral "Con Mortuis in Lingua Mortua" was marvelously detailed and a thoughtful prelude to the tumult of "The Hut of Baba-Yaga," which featured Tonnu's similarly thoughtful transition back to the main theme. And, of course, nothing was skimped in evoking Russia's enchantment with bells in "The Great Gate of Kiev."

Monday, November 26, 2018

Fonseca Theatre Company: 'Hooded' shows so much of what's hidden from Americans

Is it a violation of the conventional prohibition against spoilers in a play review if the revealed scene is the first one?

I'm choosing to think the ban doesn't apply in the case of  "Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies," which has one more weekend to run in a Fonseca Theatre Company production at Indy Convergence.

A stern cop confronts Marquis.
So I'm dismissing spoiler etiquette here. The scene is too wonderful a way of placing the play's contradictions about race in capsule form. It's when Warren Jackson as an officious police officer strides onstage to order the audience to turn cellphones back on, put the ringers at their loudest, and feel free to text or take calls during the show. There's also some strong advice to laugh only when a certain ceiling light comes on in the course of the performance. Immediately, a projection on the room's east wall gives the audience opposite instructions.

This white liberal complied with the initial order, then dutifully saw that he'd been played and followed the projected demands instead. Score one for Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm's caustic two-act comedy when it comes to plopping theatergoers into their discomfort zone. That's territory that the production's audiences (four performances remain) have to get used to — and it's not likely to be the same zone for blacks and whites.

Tru (Joshua Short) has lessons to impart.
To begin with, two young African-Americans get into mild trouble in separate incidents, and share a cell as the play begins: Tru had been loitering, but carries the burden of being pegged as a ghetto thug; the squeaky-clean Marquis has trespassed on a lark at a cemetery with two white friends, fellow private- (or maybe charter-) school classmates who eluded capture. The irony of the young men's different degrees of victimhood under the heavy hand of racism immediately springs into action. It will dominate everything that happens.

Ben Rose directs a highly committed, mesmerizing cast led by Chinyelu Mwaafrika as Marquis and Joshua Short as Tru.  Mara Lefler plays Marquis' suffocatingly well-intentioned mom. The thoroughly acclimated classmates headed for a painful epiphany are played by Patrick Mullen, James Banta, Ivy Moody, and Dani Morey. The playwright toys with conventional high-school attitudes and social friction insightfully. And there's plenty to spur a blend of nervous and carefree laughter.

Light-skinned Marquis is the adopted son of upper-middle-class white parents; Tru comes from a single-mom household in a dicey inner-city neighborhood. Thrown together accidentally, they end up as schoolmates, but Marquis' most crucial education is extracurricular, as Tru works through both the spoken and the written word to bring him around to embracing his essential blackness.

Tru tries to distinguish among the three preppie friends.
Though he thinks he fits in at Achievement Prep, wearing the uniform and glossing over how much he's different from his fellow students, Marquis gradually learns, under the persistent nagging of Tru, the persistence of the color line. The most harrowing scene has Tru trying to force Marquis to call him "nigga," which comes out of the reluctant student's mouth "nigger," resulting in a spelling and pronunciation lesson that speaks volumes about the difference between an identifier of brotherhood and the unspeakable white insult we have learned to paper over as "the n-word."

James Baldwin once summed up America as "a society much given to smashing taboos without thereby managing to be liberated from them," which might well serve as a proof text for "Hooded," almost as much as the handwritten notebook Tru thrusts upon Marquis titled "Being Black for Dummies," after the mass-produced advice-book series. A set of taboos in one culture may be a survival guide in another. Familiarity with them turns out to sustain little hope of liberation, however.

When "Being Black for Dummies" falls into a white boy's hands, things can only go wrong, leading to a denouement in which Marquis' fate is strapped onto him like a straitjacket. Though it's frequently funny, "Hooded" demonstrates that there's no avoiding the serious back story behind Marquis' playful pose earlier of "Trayvoning," sprawled prostrate on the floor with a bottle of sweet tea and a bag of Skittles nearby.

Could the dream of a man with the Christian name of Martin be snuffed out by the murder of a boy surnamed Martin? "Nobody knows my name," runs the prophetic title of the volume of Baldwin essays (from which I've taken the above quote) that I bought as a naive teenager nearly 60 years ago. My high regard for the dust-jacket photo has been enhanced by the experience of "Hooded."

[Production photos by Ben Rose]

Sunday, November 25, 2018

'A Christmas Carol' at IRT: Scrooge can hardly wait to be released from life-forged chains

The first time I saw the Indiana Repertory Theatre production of "A Christmas Carol" with Ryan Artzberger as Ebenezer Scrooge, the old skinflint's awakening to new life struck me as revelatory.

Self-made: Scrooge in his counting-house, unknowingly chained.
Back then, there was Scrooge's stunned pause as he processes the new person he has been granted the opportunity to become following the Three Spirits' visits. As much as I still cherish that image — with the giggles coming on gradually, with the casting off of long-practiced misanthropy taking on the aura of transfiguration — I welcome the quickened pace of the new production's final moments.

Under Benjamin Hanna's direction, there's something like the flicking of a switch between sobs and giggles as Scrooge seizes upon the rare good fortune of making good on what he has just learned. As seen opening night Saturday, Artzberger's Scrooge throws himself immediately into the joy of childhood freshly available to him. The transformation is more physical than I remember it, matching in ebullience its vocal expression. Scrooge says "I don't know what to do," but he really does, as he eagerly assumes his new role.

Jacob Marley's ghost offers a dire warning.
This strikes me as a persuasive change, despite my fond memory, when I recall that Charles Dickens shows us a man ripe for conversion from the Ghost of Christmas Past on. Stephenie Soohyun Park's cavorting in the role foreshadows Scrooge's at the end, a man liberated enough to roll down a snow-covered hill and, ignoring the "fourth wall," playfully toss a generous handful of the faux flakes into the front row.

What Scrooge resists is the painful vision of his life's barrenness at all three stages, not the sense of what is required of him going forward. That he readily apprehends, but the visits to his past, present, and future are necessary to flesh out the new knowledge. This production's blink-of-an-eye Scrooge conversion has had a long foreground.

The triggering Christmas Eve visit of Jacob Marley's ghost has a brief, scary epilogue (among the few things the stage production leaves out): the unwelcome vision of a restless crowd of paltry souls not able to redeem their lives' misdeeds, but condemned to a pointless, shackled afterlife. As if weighted down by mental as much as physical chains, Charles Goad in the role once again flawlessly pointed the way to the miserable path an unchanged Scrooge must follow. No wonder Scrooge is already harboring the cure for his disease.

All the cast except Artzberger is pressed into service in several portrayals.  Changes of costume and makeup are brought off as if effortlessly. The merging of scenes, with new wonders and peculiarities coming into and going out of view, is delightfully smooth. Tom Haas, whose untimely death in 1991 cut short one of several in the history of distinguished IRT artistic directorships, shored up the shifts in action by adapting the original skillfully.

Christmas Present is decked out for the season.
Narrative and dialogue flow into and out of each other, holding us spellbound. I always love to hear — it's a sensuous pleasure, like stroking fine velvet — the choral-speaking passages, the antiphonal delivery of some lines, and the original's blend of community and individuality through actual voices. Settings in Dickens notably take on personality, and the units brought into view in this show — some of them in miniature — approximate that vividness. A few well-placed traditional carols decorate Dickens' literary one.

It would be unwieldy to single out individual performances in detail, but besides Park, Goad, and Artzberger, I want to mention Scrooge's beatific, long-suffering clerk, Bob Cratchit, as interpreted by Rob Johansen, whose double takes alone must surely reach the back row; the Christmas Present and Mrs. Fezziwig of Milicent Wright, a dependable source of Christmas cheer and vivacity at every turn; Reggie White, mainly as the buoyant, optimistic nephew Fred; and Aaron Kirby as the subtly narrowing Young Scrooge, forging the chains in life the grasping miser will eventually shatter.

What the literary scholar Harold Bloom says truly of the massive "Bleak House" applies also to what happens in the compact "A Christmas Carol" and in this production's fine realization of it. For me, the insight explains what I always find moving about the novella, one of the great moral tales of our literature: "Trauma recollects forward; every remission from it brings on tears of relief and joy."

Few among us are without some form of trauma, self-inflicted or otherwise, and from blessed periods of remission. And yes, the tears of relief and joy will sometimes be ours whenever we see or read "A Christmas Carol" and take advantage of its invitation to recollect forward. The invitation is extended at IRT through Dec. 23.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Who's superstitious? Maybe not the new Phoenix, as it debuts its 13th annual "Very Phoenix Xmas" production

Curiosity is the mother of superstition, probably. If you believe you can protect yourself against
Momentarily sedate, eight female actors make up the "Merry Superstitious" cast.
exercising too much curiosity, you may adopt practices or sayings with the supposed supernatural power to ward off bad luck or bring on good fortune.

Phoenix Theatre grabs that bull by the horns in titling its 13th annual variety show "A Very Phoenix Xmas 13: Merry Superstitious." Many theatergoers besides me will attend the company's first version of its 13-year-old Yuletide production in its new venue with a surfeit of curiosity. How will "A Very Phoenix Xmas" look and feel and sound there without the guidance of Bryan Fonseca? (His founding artistic hand was removed from the tiller last spring; he's now steering a new theatrical ship out of a west-side harbor.)

The short answer is that the new production connects with tradition in its sometimes sharp-edged mirthfulness as well as its touches of tenderness: Tom Horan's continued assistance curating the show helps.  My curiosity was settled satisfactorily on a number of counts; the tradition continues in reasonably good shape. It flows nicely in a balanced way, the sketches and songs arranged so as to give each one maximum impact.

Still, Phoenix's long-term security may be in need of any number of helpful superstitions, in addition to more rational assurances of success. When it comes to where you grab that bull, there's always the risk suggested by the fabled Sam Goldwyn malapropism: "We got to grab the bull by the tail and look this problem squarely in the face."

Ben Asaykwee, a master of many locally staged revels, is at the helm of "Merry Superstitious." His directing style is to push cabaret-style production toward the grotesque, hedged round with emotional warmth. This makes the smartly put-together show clever about softening its punches. You get the fun of being jolted without harm, as with the padding on bumper cars. He contributes several clever songs, one of them (in the satirical "North Pole News") a parody pastiche presenting a twitchy DJ's introduction of new pop arrangements of some holiday songs everyone has grown tired of. In the ensemble songs on first hearing, some of the lyrics escaped me. Vocal harmonies tended to be warm and precise.

Speaking of escapes: One of the Asaykwee originals, a production number ending the first act,  intricately designed and vigorously brought off by the eight-woman cast, largely went over my head, it pains me to admit. It's a mash-up of plot and visual elements from "The Shining" and "It's a Wonderful Life." I've not seen either film, though I know a little about each. Those who know much more than I will get a kick out of "It's a Shining Life," judging from the response of Friday's opening-night audience.

With a stylized Nativity Scene behind them, cast opens Act 2.
The technical adroitness of the production team hit a pinnacle with "Poor Boy," using a Freddie Mercury song to range over a Nativity Scene backdrop as the cast sang ensemble and solo passages. Supplementing and sometimes replacing the original image was a kaleidoscope of abstract patterns, from full screen down to spotlighted faces. Ben Dobler's sound and projections design is pressed into extraordinary service in the Russell Theater, and throughout the show, the other designers join him in bringing much splendor it. They are Gordon Strain (scenic) Laura Glover (lighting), Courtney Frederick (costumes), and Danielle Buckel (properties).

The writing varies, arguably dipping a bit from previous productions. I missed the brilliance of Mark Harvey Levine's sketches, many of which I hope have found homes elsewhere. This year, the shortest sketch was mercifully so. A scene for three witches called "Conjuring Christmas" was a triumph of staging, costuming and cackling performance, but seemed lengthy, driving home its point well before the end. Irreverence ruled in the opening sketch depicting a spat between Mary and Joseph, but this note has been sounded several times before in Phoenix Xmases past.

Lou Harry's "Shep (or Mutton in Common)" gives away the author's fondness for puns in the subtitle. A stressed shepherd is being grilled  by a cynical investigator post-Nativity on the whereabouts of the flock between fields and stable. Rarely has the 23rd Psalm been exploited as both alibi and character witness so pertinently as the shepherd does here.

Steffi Rubin's "Christmas Unspectacular (Featuring the Tantalizing Tappers of Tremont Terrace)" signals a verbosity and love of alliteration that the sketch itself fortunately doesn't illustrate. Yes, a lot of words are used among several members of a once ambitious dance troupe at a tense reunion, but most of them sparkle. This is a well-written sketch, full of dance lingo, but authentic in ways that go beyond genuine shop talk.

Zack Neiditch's "Abby & Abbey's Best Christmas Pageant Ever" presents an amusing, research-rich take on the origins of familiar Christmas traditions through the two ebullient emcees' unfiltered middle-school imaginations. The sketch suggests that the spirit of the Indy Fringe Festival seems alive and well in the off-season.

The cast brings such sustained panache to the show's comedy and smidgen of pathos that it would be laborious to single out individual contributions. In a "Very Phoenix Xmas" first, it's an all-female lineup, comprising Frankie Bolda, Tiffanie Burnett, Jaddy Ciucci, Shawnté P. Gaston, Sarah Hund, Jolene Mentink Moffatt, Phebe Taylor, and Jenni White.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Friday, November 23, 2018

Rachel Barton Pine turns her lavish, expert attention to black American composers

As she informs the listener in her program notes to "Blues Dialogues," Rachel Barton Pine is a Chicagoan whose interest in the city's musical roots go way back, including a fervent affinity for the blues that she's long cultivated in addition to her classical training and achieved artistry.

Another perspective: Rachel Barton Pine displays her classical/blues chops.
In "Blues Dialogues: Music by Black Composers" (Cedille Records), she provides an extensive overview of works, some of which she has helped bring to light, for both violin alone and with piano accompaniment.

It's not easy to give a thorough survey of the rewards to be had on this generously proportioned CD. Starting with Indianapolis' own David N. Baker, Pine looks back to the godfather of African-American classical music, William Grant Still, and up to Daniel Bernard Roumain, a composer in his 40s whose "Filter"  brings to the acoustic violin some of the borderline noise, flash and slash of Jimi Hendrix's guitar.

What's amazing is that none of the performances seems to have a once-over-lightly dutifulness about it. Pine shows as much technical and emotional investment in getting these scores right and making them her own as she had done with J.S. Bach and Antonio Vivaldi. Here, the assisting artist in pieces requiring the piano is Matthew Hagle.

The endless adaptability of the blues form is well recognized in various types of American vernacular music. It may come as a surprise that composed music — awkwardly fitting under the rubric "classical" —  can also accommodate the blues when sensitively treated. That's why Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson's "Blue/s Forms" for solo violin shoots to the top of this CD's repertoire for me. Also vying for first place: The well-regarded 20th-century composer Noel Da Costa is represented by a suite, recorded here for the first time, that makes more abstract use of African-American idioms: "A Set of Dances for Solo Violin."

Another unaccompanied suite that grips and holds the attention is Dolores White's "Blues Dialogues." The use of the violin's infinite ability to slide and decorate a line is thoroughly exploited in all of these blues-centered pieces. For a concise encapsulation of one aspect of the blues tradition, it would be hard to find a piece more smile-inducing than Errollyn Wallen's "Woogie Boogie."

But just after it comes Billy Childs' "Incident on Larpenteur Avenue," a searing personal response — program music for an atrocity: the shooting of the lawfully armed motorist Philando Castile by a suburban Minnesota policeman in a 2016 traffic stop. The shock of the incident has been absorbed into a musical fabric that is thoroughly convincing in artistic terms. Such a piece seems the best kind of confirmation that the larger world can be transmuted into high-level art by a skilled composer and such an insightful performer as this violinist.


Sunday, November 18, 2018

ICO patrons get a chance to hear a stellar principal player in a major concerto

Anton Stadler was a bit of a mess as a person, but as the premier clarinetist of his day he made posterity lucky in the music his excellence as a musician drew from his friend Wolfgang Mozart (1756-1791).
Eli Eban is also acting principal of the Israel Camerata/Jerusalem.

Among the the results is perhaps the greatest wind-instrument concerto, the one in A major for clarinet, K. 622. Eli Eban, distinguished professor of clarinet at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, played the work at the peak of magnificence Saturday with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, of which he is principal clarinet. In the Schrott Center for the Arts, music director Matthew Kraemer conducted a program that also included Mendelssohn's "Trumpet" Overture in C major, op.101, and Luciano Berio's "Rendering," a restoration, with linking original material, of sketches for Franz Schubert's Tenth Symphony.

The concerto is one of the marvelous products of Mozart's last year, completed between two other miracles: "The Magic Flute" and the Requiem. It's hard to imagine such work stress (and the health problems that were to kill him by the end of the year) yielding such deathless benefits, but that's among the wonders of genius.

Not much is known about Stadler, though he earned the disapproval of Mozart's family, for reasons probably including his failure to repay an unsecured loan of 500 gulden. Michael Steinberg points out that sum was more than the composer's normal commission for an opera. The composer's affection for Stadler was undercut by the realization that, as he wrote his wife in October 1791, Stadler "is only a little bit of an ass, not much, but that [Franz Süssmayr, who completed the Requiem after Mozart's death] — well, yes, he's a real ass."

This old gossip is related here mainly to underline the way artistry can supersede personal flaws. In this case, with a work that explores the instrument's deepest range in addition to exploiting Stadler's feathery pianissimos, Mozart handed something special down to posterity, available for personalizing to any clarinetist who can manage it, as Stadler presumably did.

Eban more than managed it; he brought out the work's stature in chamber-music terms, working hand in glove with the accompaniment. The orchestra is simply strings, with pairs of flutes, horns, and bassoons. It showcased the soloist well, who never forced a note or executed an unbalanced passage. His breath control yielded supple phrasing; even the longest stretches of rapid notes in the finale were brought off neatly. On top of Eban's thorough command of the piece, his performance was freighted with the human warmth that makes Mozart's best music so appealing when played superbly. For an encore, the word's literal meaning "again" held sway, and Kraemer led Eban and the orchestra in a long excerpt to the end of the second movement.

The concert opened with a precocious work by Mendelssohn, an overture whose nickname points to the prominence of its hearty brass fanfare at beginning and end. There is a wealth of contrasting material, including an exhibition of the teenage composer's knack for counterpoint and a theme that breathes the Black Forest atmosphere of Weber's "Der Freischutz," a sensation at the time Mendelssohn composed both this overture and the incidental music to "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The ICO offered a well-balanced, colorful account.

Completing the focus on the southern end of the German-speaking world was the Schubert-Berio "Rendering," the three movements that Berio concocted in 1990 out of Schubert's Tenth Symphony sketches, with linking material reflecting the Italian composer's stylistic predilections. The result is kind of a two-century teeter-totter, with what sounded like a new direction the Viennese composer was taking from the Great C major Symphony (No. 9) linked by sometimes unsettling, sometimes dreamlike washes of modernism usually keyed to the ethereal sounds of the celesta.

"Rendering" is a challenging novelty of the kind that speaks to the ICO's artistic growth under Kraemer's direction. The performance was also a suggestive tour of the connection between the fragility of artistic achievement — sometimes seen retrospectively and deceptively as a series of imperishable monuments — and life's uncertainties. In fact, there's more than a hint in even great art of a tendency to vanish as unaccountably as large loans of money to the likes of Anton Stadler.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

I've Got a Feeling Jeff Flake will change his mind again before he retires

Indiana University production of "Hansel and Gretel" appeals to all ages in Clowes Hall performance

The challenge to innocence is a big driver of folktales, so think of the potential resonance now when exaggerated fears of childhood dangers have influenced parenting as never before.

That means "Hansel and Gretel," an old German story given to world literature by the Brothers Grimm, loses some of its quaintness whenever a production of the Engelbert Humperdinck opera takes the stage nowadays.

It's doing so this weekend — the second of two performances is this afternoon —in a show trucked in from Bloomington, where the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music Opera Theater mounted an updated production of "Hansel and Gretel" and debuted it at home just before Election Day.
Brother and sister apprehensively face a night in the dark woods.

Double-cast from the Jacobs School's wealth of sturdy young voices and conducted by Arthur Fagen, Friday's performance in Clowes Hall displayed the sureness of Opera Theater's customarily high production values and detailed acting-singing. What follows covers the cast of the Nov. 2 premiere; at today's matinee, all roles will be occupied by different students.

The opera is heavily orchestrated and uses some aspects of Richard Wagner's complex style in a way that's readily intelligible but slightly surprising as applied to such a simple story: Peasant siblings misbehave, are sent into the forest to fetch food, lose their way, go to sleep, wake up near a gingerbread cottage and are captured by a child-eating witch, who at length receives her comeuppance. The children are found by their anxious parents amid general rejoicing, supplemented by some of the crone's suddenly liberated larder of baked but uneaten victims.

Eleni Taluzek (Hansel) and Jennie Moser (Gretel) made the title characters the emotionally co-dependent if squabbling brother and sister to which Humperdinck gave lots of music in flowing arioso style. A major exception is the charming number in which Gretel teaches a dance to Hansel, and of course the imperishable Evening Prayer. Throughout the show, the two sopranos conveyed in voice, gesture, and movement the siblings'  juvenile energy, naughtiness, fearfulness, and eventually triumphant daring. Their Mother's first-act lament for her sorry lot is accompanied with Wagnerian pathos.

Sung in English with supertitles above the stage, the production never allows for a moment's confusion or obscurity for an audience of all ages. The rhymed couplets in Cori Ellison's translation are clever, but a bit stilted when the dialogue is serious. In the third act, the punning about the Witch's preferred diet is well-suited to the translation's near-doggerel.

Darian Clounts as the Witch showed flair at least as funny as it was scary.
The Witch, played with comical flair by Darian Clonts Friday, gets a lot of the best lines. The only problem is that the rollicking verse makes the Witch more amusing than stage director Michael Shell seems to have intended (according to my interview with him). Costuming and staging of the Witch's fraught interaction with the kids were marvelously detailed, but it's unlikely any younger audience members had even a momentary scare.

The Evening Prayer and Dream Pantomime, a high point of the show both musically and theatrically, were wonderfully realized through Thomas C. Hase's lighting design. The immortal work on sets and costume design by Max Rothlisberger (who died in 2003) has been supplemented in the costume area by Mark Frederic Smith and Dana Tzvetkov.

Brother and sister are charmed by mysterious dancers at night.
The whole team, with choreography for six sylph-like dancers by Christian Claessens completing the enchantment, is responsible for the magical second-act climax. In the third act, there is more magic to come, much of it pyrotechnical, before all the children and  Hansel and Gretel's parents join in a chorus of pious gratitude, swelled by the adept orchestra.

This cast has Geuna Kim as the Dew Fairy and Mandeline Coffey as the Sandman, attending briefly on the lost children with melodious reassurances in Act 2. The parents — Father heartily celebrating his good fortune in town at first, Mother fretful and scolding — were sung in well-projected fashion by Jeremiah Sanders and Hayley Lipke.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Danish String Quartet returns amid lots of buzz from last year's Ensemble Music appearance

To deal with the novelty first: Hans Abrahamsen's String Quartet No. 1 ("Ten Preludes") gave the evening's best indication that even when the Danish String Quartet is presented with a miscellany of demands for the four players, they remain unfailingly a unit.
The Danish Quartet, solidly unified in performance, indulges its individualism here.

The group appeared again Wednesday in the Ensemble Music Society series at the Indiana History Center, 13 months after they made a sensational local debut.

EMS President John Failey noted from the stage how unusual it is for this presenter to invite an ensemble back so soon. But the wisdom of the decision was evident in the difficulty of finding any of the Basile Theater's 290 seats empty as the concert started.

As for the work by the Danish composer Abrahamsen (b. 1952), it consists of a series of short pieces promising development of some sort but never allowing it to take place. The idioms mastered in the course of the work extend across the variety of writing for two violins, viola, and cello. Though the players seemed to be pulled in different directions, they sounded comfortable as a team throughout.

In "Ten Preludes," there are buzzing tremolos, skittering gestures suggesting mice in the woodwork, striking unison declarations, unsteady exchanges of syncopated passages, and a final prelude of hymnlike solace that suggests all's right with the world. I heard fleeting stylistic allusions to the Second Viennese School (chiefly Arnold Schoenberg), to the "night music" of Bela Bartok, and to the kind of across-the-board digging in we find in Shostakovich's string quartets. Resolution of mood and harmony was almost always suspended.

So, when it came to opening and closing the program out of the First Viennese School (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven), the unified presentation of the DSQ rested upon a foundation most congenial to showing that it is indeed "indivisible by four" (to borrow the title of Arnold Steinhardt's memoir of the Guarneri Quartet).

The unity that violinists Frederik Øland and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, violist Asbjørn Nørgaard, and cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin typically display is the product of coordination through time and tone alike. The cellist plays like a violinist, in the sense that his bow control is capable of the delicacy and near weightlessness of his violin colleagues; the middle voice of the viola stays thoroughly in the same spirit. In Haydn's String Quartet in C major, op. 20, no.2, which opened the concert, you never got the sense that in every breast there was a soloist ready to burst out. No individual voice stuck out, whatever the temporary prominence of its material. Every fluctuation of tempo, as in the third-movement minuet, was unanimously executed.

After intermission came one of those middle-period Beethoven pieces that represent the ingenious bridge he laid down between the past and the future of his art. His Quartet no. 7 in F major, op. 59, no. 1, opens with what is inevitably called a square melody in the cello which is then treated to startling contrasts as well as reaffirmations. In every respect, especially in the delightful second movement, you had the illusion of hearing one instrument play the music even while looking at four of them hard at work.

The slow movement can try a listener's patience. It really sinks into its somber mood — one of the cases where a composer's life experiences at the time seem to have influenced what emerged from his pen. The Adagio is certainly overstated in how it handles two themes at length, twinned in sadness. Another example better known to the general public is the third movement of the Ninth Symphony. In both cases, their effectiveness is something we feel partly in retrospect after the finale gets under way; when we're in the midst of it, we can hardly keep from looking for the exits.

In the symphony, the initial statement famously doesn't offer any relief at first; in the case of the quartet, the lifting of spirits is immediate. There's a wonderful transition to it as well, which the DSQ managed superbly. The borrowed Russian theme then gets the ultimate of Beethoven's virtuosity, and the players were up to the task. The performance Wednesday made it a special treat to experience the music's complete banishment of dark clouds. The reigning zest prepared us for the serenity of a Carl Nielsen song that the ensemble offered as an encore.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Ronen Chamber Ensemble's season-long 'sister cities' theme visits Piran and native son Tartini

With two outright masterpieces shoring up the program, the Ronen Chamber Ensemble held on to its celebration of Indianapolis' Sister Cities with a salute to Giuseppe Tartini, a native of Piran, Slovenia (known as Pirano when it was part of the Venetian empire of his day (1692-1770)).

The Concertino for Clarinet and Piano is Gordon Jacob's arrangement drawn from a couple of Tartini violin sonatas. It was played with the zest of a well-prepared appetizer to main courses of Mozart and Beethoven on Tuesday night at Indiana Landmarks Center.

The slow-fast-slow-fast layout of the work made for satisfying contrasts of textures and tempos for the duo of David Bellman and Gregory Martin. The clarinetist's passagework was unfailingly smooth and even in the Allegro molto; in the other fast movement, a sometimes brutally rapid finale, the difficulty for the clarinet to match the notes-per-second capability of the violin occasionally became evident.

Zachary DePue, Gregory Martin, and Ingrid Fischer-Bellman
Pianist Martin, often the workhorse of recent Ronen programs, was back in a more challenging role for Beethoven's Piano Trio in B-flat, op. 97, ("Archduke"). He was joined by violinist Zachary DePue and cellist Ingrid Fischer-Bellman, Ronen co-founder. The coordinated "singing" tone all three players produced in the Andante cantabile was a high point, though the pace lagged here and there into what felt like "adagio."

The second-movement Scherzo was lent some appropriate notes of mystery and suspense. In the finale, however, there was suspense at a couple of points that didn't strike me as germane. Holds (or fermatas) at transition points aren't meant to imply a brief rest before the next phrase, yet twice — at the initial Presto and then where the tempo picks up to piu presto (faster)— this trio inserted a pause. It may have been a deliberate interpretive choice, but to me authentic Beethoven excitement is the suddenness with which he changes or intensifies the mood (sometimes by one accented chord). There was a note of staidness about the finale that could have been at least partially wiped away by going "bang!" into those Presto passages. Indeed, the whole performance could have used more sparkle.

The highlight of the concert occupied the entire second half. Though the omission of Mozart's name
The ensemble acknowledges applause for its Mozart performance.
from the printed program was never explained, it was indeed his Serenade in C minor for wind octet, K.388, that brought onstage eight accomplished wind instrumentalists for a brightly engaging performance of the four-movement work.

With the main voice being the first oboe's, it was fun to hear Jennifer Christen in performance again during a time when she's been on maternity leave from the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, where she is principal oboist. Joining her were Bellman and Samuel Rothstein, clarinets; Crystal Barrett, second oboe; Mike Muszynski and Kelly Swensson, bassoons, and Robert Danforth and Julie Beckel Yager, horns.

The vigor and attractiveness of the composition's themes and its tightly organized blend of high-profile melody and sweetly balanced accompaniment were firmly in place. The piece becomes especially winning with the emphasis on counterpoint in the canonic minuet-and-trio movement; variety of texture also comes to the fore there, which was brilliantly outlined by the ensemble. In the fast-paced finale, only some brief slips in coordination in the main theme's return detracted from the ensemble's excellent account of the work, which deserved to be credited in print to the apparently forgotten genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.